Friday, January 9, 2015


"Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!"

—Matthew 7:7-11

And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. He said, "In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man. And there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, 'Give me justice against my adversary.' For a while he refused, but afterward he said to himself, 'Though I neither fear God nor respect man, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.'" And the Lord said, "Hear what the unrighteous judge says. And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?"

—Luke 18:1-8

I have been doubting the existence of God.

This comes about mainly through my recent experience of God as a terrible father. I keep reading the above passages and wondering in what obscure sense Jesus might have meant them, because their straightforward interpretation seems, if not outright false, at least useless in practice.

The last four months of my life have been by far the most consistently prayerful, and arguably the worst. I have filled pages and pages with written prayers, and hours and hours with spoken prayers. I have prayed piously and profanely. I have prayed in whispers and in shouts and in tears. I have prayed for myself and I have prayed for those who persecute me. I have prayed for change, I have prayed for comfort, I have prayed for wisdom, I have prayed for understanding, I have prayed for guidance, and I have prayed for God to just throw me a f***ing bone, something, anything at all. The more I pray, the more it feels as if I am talking merely to myself, and wasting my time. Of all the prayers, the only ones that have clearly been answered were when, feeling like I was becoming calloused and numb, I prayed for God to make me hurt again. Those requests he happily obliged.

If God is a father, then to me he's the kind of father who buys you lots of ice cream and pizza and video games so you tell all your friends he's the best dad ever, and then he goes out for a pack of cigarettes and you don't see him for months. Or worse, he's the kind of father who uses fear as a weapon, noticing any spark of hope or initiative and crushing it to keep you in line. You pine for nothing so much as his affection, until you get old enough to realize what a waste that was.

Now, suffering love has long been central to my theology. Darkness and mystery are central to my theology. Even Jesus' prayer, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" is central to my theology. But at what point do you question whether hanging limply on a cross is saving anyone at all? I don't know, maybe at the time Jesus felt like his own crucifixion was a senseless waste. In any case, in the event that this life is my only life, I do not want to spend it in purposeless suffering.

In the past I have often looked at my hardships in hindsight and felt they made sense somehow, that I was "supposed" to experience them to learn something. And I did learn from them. Mostly I learned that the world is a cold, cruel place and that it often (but not always) helps to reach out to the people who love you. I wonder if my active imagination, which has created countless threads of false hope in the past, is not overly eager to impose a meaning, a narrative structure placing my worst suffering always as the end of a second act, pregnant with hope for a better tomorrow. I wonder if all the meaning and sense of direction has been merely the therapeutic reinterpretation of essentially random events, and decisions fueled by a desire for purpose. It suits me — I have always been a rational person with a powerful imagination and a little too much optimism.

For the first time in my life (including my previous atheistic streak, the last time I was depressed), the notion of no God at all is more cheering to me than the notion that there is a God hearing all my prayers. If no one hears my prayers, then I am just a fool — no surprise there — and no more alone than I already felt. If someone does hear my prayers, then I feel unloved and uncared-for by someone in particular, someone on whom I have depended, someone to whom I have devoted myself, someone to whom I have cried out again and again.

Still, the thought of becoming an atheist is scary. Not so much because of the theological shift (which would be subtler than you might think), but because of the extent to which I have based my lifestyle on my faith. In a world without God, without an afterlife, what about my life would change? Would I still be a farmer? Would I still live in a tiny house? Would I buy a car? What would I write about, if anything? Whose books would line my bookshelf (if not the likes of Wendell Berry, Leo Tolstoy, Shane Claiborne, C.S. Lewis)? Where would I find community? Would I still choose to live in Holland, Michigan, of all places? Believing that there is no higher power, would I put some faith back in earthly powers and start voting again? Would I still be a pacifist? Believing there to be no one to hear my prayers, would I still be willing to live alone? How would I make decisions at all? Every major lifestyle decision I've made in the last five-plus years (several of them fairly extreme) has to a large extent been based on my faith.

At the least, I would permit myself to be more selfish. There is obviously a great deal of overlap between selfishness and selflessness: it's usually rewarding to be nice. But I would not hesitate so much to pursue things simply because I want them.

Perhaps this is an opportunity when, finally put through the fires of incarnational realism, my belief in suffering love can migrate from my head to my heart, and in a few weeks or months or years I will be preaching the gospel of a crucified god as fervently as ever. Perhaps some ribbon will eventually tie this all together into a lovely testimony of grace and redemption. I sincerely hope so. But here I am, in the present moment, tasked with making decisions for my life without a shred of the providential guidance for which I have repeatedly begged. What would Jesus do? What would anyone do?

O Lord, God of my salvation;
I cry out day and night before you.
Let my prayer come before you;
incline your ear to my cry!

For my soul is full of troubles,
and my life draws near to Sheol.
I am counted among those who go down to the pit;
I am a man who has no strength,
like one set loose among the dead,
like the slain that lie in the grave,
like those whom you remember no more,
for they are cut off from your hand.
You have put me in the depths of the pit,
in the regions dark and deep.
Your wrath lies heavy upon me,
and you overwhelm me with all your waves.

—Psalm 88:1-7